To Tell The Truth
My boyfriend and I are standing at the back of the crowd, sipping Bud Lights and indulging in the kind of public displays of affection that small, dark clubs are made for. On stage, a singer-songwriter called M. Ward is belting out bluesy, heart-wrenching tunes. As far as dates go, this is my idea of heaven. About halfway through the show, I glance around and am surprised to catch sight of my ex standing less than 10 feet away. It's no big deal (our relationship ended on friendly terms), but the last thing I'm in the mood for on such a romantic night is an awkward introduction. So I keep his presence to myself, he never notices me, and my honey is none the wiser.
Is that dishonest? I don't think so. Is it completely straightforward? Er, no. My omission falls into that vast gray area between deception and truth that's the source of endless petty fights and twinges of guilt. I'm not talking about the near-unforgivable betrayals that destroy relationships, like infidelity or running off with the contents of your spouse's bank account — nothing gray there. It's everyday stuff that throws me for an ethical loop: No, I didn't spend a fortune at the mall. Of course I don't mind if your mother stays for a week. Wow, that was the best orgasm ever! Is it even possible to maintain harmony without fudging the truth and telling a white lie occasionally? "It's complicated," says Jackie Black, Ph.D., a psychologist and relationship coach in Southern California. "On the one hand, if you aren't authentic in a relationship, you're wasting your time. On the other, there's no reason to share insignificant, counterproductive information with your partner just for the sake of telling all." So how do you know when to open up and when to shut your trap? Keep reading.
Why White Lies Count
In a Women's Health survey of nearly 600 women, 70 percent said that they lie to their significant other at least some of the time. So when my friend Sarah said she never tells tall tales to her hubby, I rolled my eyes and pressed her to confess. She finally admitted that though she'd never lie about anything important, a few weeks ago she'd told him she spent an afternoon at the gym when in reality she was at a cafe flipping through magazines and eating Rice Krispie treats. "I had sworn that I was going to start exercising again and was too embarrassed to admit I'd wimped out," she explained.
Those little lies tend to roll right off the tongue, but they're more important than you might think. The motivation behind them is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about love. It all goes back to mom and dad: "When your parents asked if you had a good day at school or if you put away your toys, if you answered anything other than 'yes,' they were upset," says Elayne Savage, Ph.D., author of Breathing Room: Creating Space to Be a Couple. "By punishing the wrong answer, they inadvertently taught you to say whatever would make them happy." As a result, the knee-jerk response to people whose approval we crave is to give them the "right" answer instead of the real one. Bad idea. "Real intimacy requires mutual understanding that includes knowing and accepting each other's flaws, quirks, and weaknesses," Dr. Savage says. If you want to grow closer to someone, you have to get into the habit of exposing yourself instead of always trying to present the "perfect" you. Another very good reason to avoid casual bending of the truth is to preserve your overall credibility. If a friend had happened to see Sarah through the cafe window and mentioned it to her husband, it would have made him wonder what other lies she might be telling.
Bombs That Don't Need Dropping
Being open about who you are is one thing, but going on and on about past relationships or constantly bringing up bad decisions made long ago is begging for trouble. "Making a habit of describing how you acted or felt with a former lover prevents your current partner from experiencing you as you are now, and sends the message that you're making comparisons, which is manipulative and unfair," Dr. Black says. It's innocent enough to mention things you did with an ex when they come up naturally in conversation, and it's downright crucial that you discuss any aspect of a previous relationship that's still affecting the two of you in a serious way. But beyond that, why drop Mr. Wrong's name at all? "It's like touring France with someone who won't stop talking about all the ways it's similar to or different from Italy," says my friend Liesa. "You want to smack them and scream, 'Forget f——ing Italy. This is France!'"
Blabbing about ancient mistakes that you would never repeat can also be surprisingly detrimental to your relationship. "Unless it's information that's going to gnaw at you until you tell it, or that could have a direct impact on the present, there's no benefit to volunteering it," says Bill Crawford, Ph.D., a psychologist and speaker in Houston, Texas. For example, if you're $50,000 in debt, your boyfriend should know that long before he becomes your fiance. But mentioning the time you drove drunk through a snowstorm or walked in on an ex's roommate taking a shower and decided, "What the hell — might as well join him!" will only plant unnecessary doubt about your judgment in your partner's mind. "Your goal is to present yourself as you really are, not as you were," Dr. Black says.
Getting to the Truth
Of the 70 percent of women mentioned above who occasionally pass fiction off as fact, 65 percent said that they're likely to own up to their lie. The reason? To clear the air. Lies do have a nasty way of clouding things up. "Ideally, you want things like love and trust and security to fill the space between you and your partner," Dr. Savage says. "Dishonesty fills that space with guilt, anxiety, and shame." While it's okay to backpedal and admit when you didn't have the guts to tell the truth, obviously it's better to tell it like it is in the first place. But that's easier said than done.
"Couples need to practice honesty on a daily basis," Dr. Crawford says. "Even if your partner is just asking if you like the wine he chose, being sincere will do more to build a strong bond than lying in an attempt to spare his feelings." As a rule, focus on the positive. Say that you like the cut of his Hawaiian shirt, but you aren't such a big fan of the pattern, or that you love it when he does X in bed, but would be even more thrilled if he were to do Y. If there are no positives, be doubly honest: Admit that you want to give him the straight answer that he deserves — as you would want if the situation were reversed — but you don't want to hurt his feelings. Acknowledging that your opinions and feelings aren't facts, just your take on things, will also soften a difficult delivery and prevent you from coming off as righteous or judgmental.
The bottom line is that while you shouldn't have to fudge the truth to maintain a happy relationship, it always helps to give it a generous sugar coating.